JAPANESE HENN-NA HOTEL FIRES ITS ROBOTIC WORKFORCE : can AI completely replace humans?

The rising adoption that we are witnessing of AI products and services by companies and organizations has also taken place in the hospitality industry. If potentially AI services could allow hotels to successfully improve customer experiences and perform functions such as handling customers’ information and predicting occupancy rates, it is also important to highlight that there are still some activities that need to be performed by humans because they demand soft skills such as empathy, communication, creativity and critical thinking that cannot be replicated by mere robots.

For this reason, it is fundamental to examine ex-ante the situations under which it is more convenient for a hotel to introduce machines replacing humans and when not, to avoid wasting time and resources in implementing precarious AI services that could weaken customers’ experience and generate losses for the hotel.

To better explain the tragic consequences that can be produced by the adoption of weak AI services for a company, we can think about the first robot hotel, the Japanese Henn-na Hotel, which in 2019 had to fire half of its robotic dinosaurs because they were not able to fulfil efficiently the tasks that they were programmed to perform, such as check-in, porterage, room assistance and facial recognition. PhD students from National Tsing-Hua University, Raden Agoeng Bhimasta and Pei-Yi Kuo examined the potential reasons why AI did not live up to expectations and they came up with some factors and deficiencies that have potentially contributed to its failure.

First of all, customers found robots not useful, meaning that the tasks they performed were extremely limited and many times not helpful. They could just answer a defined set of questions, so if for instance a customer asked more specifically “What’s the temperature for tomorrow?” or “Which is the chance of rain for tomorrow?” they were not able to reply. Moreover, since sometimes service robots were not able to carry out their tasks effectively, human intervention was necessary, making the whole process longer and frustrating for the customers.

Another reason for the AI failure lies in the difficulty experienced by hotel guests in interacting with robots and giving them inputs to process. Issues related to touch screen, keyboard position, and voice recognition happened very frequently, making customers irritated and annoyed. On an online review, a very upset customer reported that the facial recognition device at the room entrance, which was supposed to recognize only his face, identified the face of a non-registered friend, letting him in easily.

Last not but not least, what has also played a key role in making hotel guests feel disappointed by their experience at the Henn-na Hotel has been the large gap existing between their expectations and reality. Indeed, every customer coming to stay in the first robot hotel has high expectations about how their experience will be, looking forward to interacting with the highly-promoted hotel staff composed of dinosaurs. But unfortunately, as soon as they started the check-in process, they immediately realized the huge discrepancies between their prior views and the experience.

The story of the Henn-na Hotel is an interesting case study and it should make us reflect on how inefficient AI services could turn a whole experience for a customer into a complete nightmare, and finally whether companies like hotels, which base their business on making customers feel pampered and spoiled, are ready to welcome robots completely replacing humans. Once again it reminds us which could be the potential risks to which companies adopting AI are exposed, and why companies should carry out a former accurate assessment of their achievable technical capabilities to know which could be the expected level of performance of a specific digital service.

CARLO ZIPPO

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